Small groups of Jews who anticipated German plans for the mass murder of the Jewish population sought refuge in the deep forests and swamps of Belarus. During the winter of 1941 and spring of 1942, some began to form partisan groups. According to scholars Ilya Altman and Joshua Rubenstein, “Within Belorussia [Belarus], the impact of the partisan movement was particularly widespread. . . . As many as 30,000 Jews joined an estimated 340,000 other partisans in units that operated against the Germans, in spite of the fact that non-Jewish partisans were not always willing to accept Jews into their units.” Among them were the Bielski brothers, who joined tens of thousands of Soviet partisans to help defeat Germany in 1944. According to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation,
In Byelorussia [Belarus], it is estimated that thousands of Jewish partisans escaped the Minsk ghetto into the forests of Slutsk and Koydanov, where they formed seven companies of fighters. According to one estimate, 11,000 Russian Jewish partisans fought in Byelorussia and western Ukraine alone. Others have estimated the number to be between 12,000 to 15,000—the greatest concentration of Jewish partisans in the movement.
Without the aid of Soviet partisans, the chances of survival for the Jewish partisans were very slim. Beyond the barbed wire and sentries of the ghettos, there were spies in the villages, armed sentries on bridges and on roads leading to the forests, ambushes, or the likelihood of being turned in by peasants paid to inform by the Nazi authorities. Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian guerilla bands were often as hostile as the Nazis and freely killed Jews.
Joining a Soviet partisan group was extremely difficult. The first requirement was [to] have a weapon, an extremely rare commodity for a Jew to find. Russian Jews who joined Soviet partisan groups often banded together to form all-Jewish or mostly Jewish units, as some of the Soviet partisans were antisemitic. As the Soviet partisan movement grew and expanded, Jewish units were absorbed into others.
While entirely Jewish groups were opposed by the Soviet command, persecution of Jews from within the Soviet partisans was also opposed. In many cases, Jews thwarted the antisemitism by not revealing their Jewish identity in order to join. Some also fought as members of independent all-Jewish groups, forming ties with nearby Soviet partisans. Byelorussian Jewish partisan leader Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, for example, combined resistance and rescue to form one of the largest groups of Jewish partisans anywhere. The Bielski group gave shelter to all those who could not fight. At the end of the war, there were 1,200 men, women, and children in the camp.